TORONTO — Ontario is postponing March break until the week of April 12 in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19, a move decried by critics who argued the government should instead be focusing on making schools safer.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said postponing the break -- a decision based on the advice of the province’s top doctor -- is an important way schools can help limit community transmission.
"I recognize this is one more change in a year that has been challenging for so many students and our education staff," Lecce said Thursday. "But it is one made on the best advice of public health officials to keep them safe and to keep our schools open in this province."
The minister said people should avoid travelling over the next several weeks and noted that limiting transmission is especially important given that more contagious variants of the virus are circulating in the province.
The province's largest teachers' union, the association representing public school boards and the Opposition New Democrats had all asked for the March break to go ahead as planned, saying families, students and teachers needed it.
Four teachers' unions decried the postponement in a joint statement Thursday and called on the government to reverse the move.
“The government’s decision to postpone March Break does not take into consideration the mental health and well-being of those involved,” the statement said.
The group said going ahead with the plan despite opposition from unions and stakeholders shows a disregard for front-line workers.
The group also questioned why the Progressive Conservative government is starting to lift restrictions on businesses if there are concerns about travel and gatherings during March break.
A union representing other education workers also criticized the move, saying Lecce has failed to implement other pandemic safety measures like mandatory screening in schools and universal paid sick leave.
“The minister can delay March break and claim he’s doing it in the interest of public health. But if he’s not carrying out the proposals above during the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s putting students, workers and families at risk,” union president Laura Walton said in a statement.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath echoed those concerns, saying the government should do more to make schools safe rather than cancel a much-needed break.
"We have to find a way to give everyone a spring break that’s safe. Just kicking the can down the road isn’t a solution," Horwarth said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association said school communities are grateful to have at least a break coming, even if it isn’t at the preferred time.
“We do know that it is important to be following the public health recommendations and if this is going to help us get to the end of the pandemic sooner then this is what we'll do,” Cathy Abraham, the association's president, said Thursday.
“We do appreciate getting a break at all, because it has been a challenge for some.”
All students began the new year learning remotely as part of a provincial lockdown.
The government then took a gradual approach to reopening physical classrooms, starting with northern and rural areas.
Students in three COVID-19 hot spots -- Toronto, Peel Region and York Region -- will be the last ones in the province to return to physical classrooms on Feb. 16.
Top doctors in Toronto and Peel have warned that rolling back other restrictions as students resume in-person learning amid the spread of new virus variants could kick off a worse wave of infections.
The provincial and the federal governments have been urging residents to limit their travel.
The federal government recently introduced its own policies aimed at preventing travel over the spring break. Four major airlines have halted their flights from Canada to Mexico and the Caribbean until the end of April.
The provincial government has also introduced mandatory COVID-19 testing for all international arrivals to Ontario.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 11, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press